The Los Angeles Rams open the season Sunday night at SoFi Stadium against the Chicago Bears. The expectations for LA are sky high, as many are predicting that they’ll see the Rams in the Super Bowl this year. Many fans expect at least a 12-5 record, if that isn’t too weird to look at.
After an offseason of growing anticipation, all eyes are on the budding relationship between new quarterback Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay. The duo are expected to start the season fast and quell concerns that NFL defenses have caught up to the McVay scheme, that many of the issues lied in what he had to work with at quarterback.
If he and Les Snead are wrong about that, fans won’t be pleased with the loss of two first round picks.
Reporters ask LA players during press conferences on near daily basis about the weighty Super Bowl expectations: “How would it feel to be the second consecutive team to play the world championship in your home stadium?” It’s fair to ask, and it’s even harder not to what what could be. When expectations are that high for a team, hosting a game on Sunday Night Football in Week 1, it can be easy to forget that there’s a really good professional football team on the other side.
The Bears were a playoff team last year, but not a good one. Other than a 20-19 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago had no other wins of note on an 8-8 record. However, there is reason to believe that improvement is on the way in the form of several elite defensive players, a handful of potential breakout seasons on the horizon, and two reasons for optimism at quarterback.
What is the likelihood that the Rams have Super Bowl tunnel vision and are overlooking the Bears?
1 - Will players need to “shake off rust” after skipping all of the preseason?
In what has become the norm for Los Angeles under McVay, most starters and key role players did not participate in the preseason. While there were some tweaks across the three different exhibition contests, as many as 38 individuals did not dress at various points.
Starting slow has not been a concern for LA in the past, as the team is 4-0 under McVay in Week 1. The lack of preseason reps has not impacted the team in recent years, but will that have any impact on the fact that the team has a new quarterback?. With a new signal caller running the show, there may be a few more kinks to work out than had been the case in recent season openers.
However, one reason I might not be concerned about this is that Stafford is entering his 13th season in the NFL and is well-versed in how to prepare. The other important note is that the Rams held multiple joint practices and had multiple opportunities to iron out kinks against starting-level competition ... something they wouldn’t have been able to do against the Chargers or Raiders.
There are a few key players who it might have been nice to see though. Center Brian Allen is one. Maybe the number one. Darrell Henderson is two, though we didn’t really want to see him get touched until the games count. Van Jefferson is another, given that he still hasn’t had many NFL reps. Same goes for outside linebacker Justin Hollins and cornerback David Long, Jr. How will these players react to becoming starters?
They can only find out on Sunday.
2 - QB Andy Dalton is better than his reputation
Fans of the Bears and the NFL have largely mocked Chicago head coach Matt Nagy for electing to start veteran Andy Dalton over rookie first rounder Justin Fields; however, Dalton can play well under the right circumstances.
The former Cincinnati Bengal has been named to the Pro Bowl three times and once lead his team to the playoffs in five straight seasons between 2011-2015. While this seems like a long time ago, and certainly the landscape of the NFL has changed significantly since then, this was also the last time Dalton played on a team with an adequate supporting cast.
And we have to remember that the only bar Dalton needs to get above right now is “be better than the Bears’ previous quarterbacks.” Not necessarily to be better than Justin Fields, which he simply might be right now given the difference in their experience levels.
I know you want to talk about Justin Fields. We’d all rather talk about Justin Fields. But there’s little reason to believe that Dalton won’t be the quarterback for virtually the entire game, barring injury. Fields could appear for a snap or two, but that seems to be Nagy’s limit.
Dalton is joining a Bears team that clinched the final 2020 NFC wild card spot with an 8-8 record in spite of poor play from quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles. Yes, the Pro Bowl honors are easily explained by “how the Pro Bowl works” and AFC quarterbacks, but Chicago isn’t asking Dalton to be one of the 10 or 20-best quarterbacks in the NFL. They’re asking him to not hurt the team by making stupid mistakes.
Dalton may be a lot of things. He may not be exciting. He may not be an elite deep ball passer. He may be known more for his hair than his arm. But he is not a mistake-maker.
Rams coach Sean McVay had high praise for Bears starting quarterback Andy Dalton, but he also noted that it’s important to be ready for Justin Fields.https://t.co/OvqZaUNl8j— Sun-Times Sports (@suntimes_sports) September 7, 2021
In one six-game stretch with the Dallas Cowboys last season, Dalton threw 13 touchdowns, four interceptions, completed 67% of his passes, posted a 101.9 passer rating, and helped Dallas go 4-2 in that span. If the Bears can give him a quality supporting cast, he can get the job done.
The main concern with Chicago’s offense is the offensive line after the team released dependable left tackle Charles Leno in an effort to save his salary against the cap. To replace Leno the Bears drafted Teven Jenkins in the second round, but the rookie missed most of training camp and is now on injured reserve.
The incredibly-lucky news for Chicago’s draft class is that fifth round tackle Larry Borom has been one of the stars of training camp and preseason. The Bears also signed 39-year-old veteran Jason Peters and the left tackle hopes he has as much game left in him as LA’s 39-year-old left tackle.
Bears OL coach Juan Castillo says LT Jason Peters has handled 55-60 plays in practice, and the team is confident that he’s good to go for Sunday vs. Rams.— Jason Lieser (@JasonLieser) September 6, 2021
Between Cody Whitehair — who some say is primed for a second career breakout because of a transition from center to left guard — Peters, new center Sam Mustipher, and right guard James Daniels, who missed most of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, there is hope for an improved offensive line. It’s right tackle Germain Ifedi who might be the weak link to expose.
Dalton’s veteran savvy should help get the ball out quick and in the hands of playmakers Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney, and Jimmy Graham. The Bears are in need of a point guard-type passer that can help the offense stay on schedule, and their new quarterback may be the short-term answer.
3 - The Bears have high-end talent at important positions
The talent on offense is led by star receiver Allen Robinson, who remains one of the best pass catchers in the NFL. Robinson has spent his career playing with middling passers such as Blake Bortles, Trubisky, and Foles; however, it’s fair to suggest Dalton may be the best of this bunch. However, it is second-year receiver Darnell Mooney who has grabbed most of the attention — and plenty of throws from Dalton and Fields — during training camp.
If either of their top two tight ends in Jimmy Graham or 2020 second round pick Cole Kmet can produce at tight end, Dalton is going to be better-armed than many of his Chicago predecessors.
And we can’t sleep on David Montgomery. The 24-year-old back ranked third in broken tackles forced last season, behind only Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook; and he actually averaged more broken tackles per run than both Henry and Cook.
David Montgomery had 8 games with 100+ yards from scrimmage last year. Only Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry had more amongst running backs. pic.twitter.com/V3asAWiO1i— Field Yates (@FieldYates) September 1, 2021
The defense is anchored by always-elite pass rusher Kahlil Mack, a reliable edge player who has only missed two games in seven seasons. Though Mack has “only” averaged nine sacks per season over the last two years, he should see fewer double and triple-teams with improved front-seven players around him.
The Bears have that this season.
Former Ram Robert Quinn had a down-year in 2020, but he still poses a threat on the edge, while also-former Ram Alec Ogletree has been a surprise stand out as a late free agent signing. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks will be a big test for Brian Allen’s first live action since early in the 2019 season, and he may not even be as primed for a potential Pro Bowl season as line-mate Bilal Nichols.
And this is the part of the speech in the disaster movie where I tell you that inside linebacker Roquan Smith might be the best player on Chicago’s defense now. The eighth overall pick of the 2018 draft, Smith posted career-highs with 139 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, six QB hits, two interceptions, seven passes defensed, and his first forced fumble. Smith also posted four sacks. He’s 24.
The defensive backfield centers around the reliable safety Eddie Jackson, but cornerback Jaylon Johnson, a second round pick in 2020, was one of the top rookies at his position a year ago and might take over as the most-talented secondary player.
The Chicago Bears only ranked 14th in points allowed and 11th in yards allowed last season, so you may be wondering why anyone would make a fuss about fearing them in 2020, but perhaps the most important change of all came at defensive coordinator. Chuck Pagano’s January retirement opened the door for 38-year-old Sean Desai to be promoted. Welcome to this year’s Brandon Staley.
Desai has been coaching on the Bears defense since 2013 (making him a colleague of Staley’s only a few years ago), having worked for three different head coaches, and it was said that he had quite an impact on players in training camp this year. Will he be as successful as Staley? That has yet to be determined, but having players like Mack, Roquan Smith, Hicks, Jackson, and Quinn makes it possible.
Matt Nagy said of Robert Quinn: "I like where here's at. ... His mindset is great. Physically, he's in a really good spot. Schematically with Sean [Desai], he's in a great place. Now he's just got to go do it."— Chris Emma (@CEmma670) September 6, 2021
The Rams expect to be among the best teams in the NFL this season, but they’ll need to take it one game at a time. The Bears will look to prove skeptics wrong and fight for a spot in the playoffs. LA should be careful to try not to run before they walk.